Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba
Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d (part one)
This famous passage appears in an extended sugya (talmudic unit) that expounds on Mishnah Taanit 4:6, which mentions the fall of Beitar. This town was located near the present day Arab village of Batir, several kilometers south-east of Jerusalem, and served as rebel headquarters during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 to 135 or 136 CE). As the last stronghold of the revolt, its defeat marked the war’s end. The Mishnah dates that event to the ninth of Av, along with the destructions of the First and Second Temples, thus placing these catastrophes on a similar scale. Yet, this mishnah does not discuss the role of the Romans in the destruction of the Second Temple or the fall of Beitar. By contrast, in its treatment of this mishnah, this sugya develops a number of subjects that remain unaddressed in tannaitic literature, including: reasons for the fall of Beitar; Roman brutality toward this town’s populace at that time; the character of Bar Kokhba, the rebel leader, known as Bar Kozva or Bar Kuzva in the Talmud (more on variants of his name in Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 53-55); and, rabbinic attitudes toward that revolt, specifically, to what extent did they advocate for it? Given the length of this talmudic sugya, for our project, I have divided it into subsections that may be read individually or sequentially (this portion is followed by Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d [part two]; Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a; Ta‘anit 4:6, 69a [part one]; Ta‘anit 4:6, 69a [part two]). This part focuses on two main issues: First, Section A cites a midrash on Genesis 27:22: “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” reading this verse in relation to the fall of Beitar and, in Section E, Rabbi Yoḥanan further develops the subject of the sound (or voice) that accompanied Rome’s victory. The middle sections (B to D) consider Rabbi Akiva’s support of Bar Kozva; in Section C, this sage acclaims him as the anointed (or messianic) king.
Section A cites a baraita (tannaitic teaching) in which Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Ilai – a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba Revolt – relates a teaching from another rabbi: in one version, Rabbi Yehudah quotes Baruch, whose identity unknown; in another, he refers to “my master” without specifying a name (and the inclusion of “Baruch” is redundant). According to Joshua Efron, Rabbi Yehudah is transmitting the words of Rabbi Akiva, who articulates his sorrow and agitation over the cruelty of Rome during the defeat of Beitar (“Bar-Kokhva,” 52; cf. Schäfer, “Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis,” p. 3). Regardless of the author, this tradition: identifies Israel and Rome with Jacob and Esau, respectively; and, reads Genesis 27:22 as a reference to the conquest of Beitar, where Israel cries in response to Romans’ brutal exercise of power with their hands. In Section E, without direct mention of this verse, Rabbi Yoḥanan, a second-generation amora who was active in the third century (died ca. 280), refers to the “voice” of this war, ascribed to Emperor Hadrian (Adriyanos qeysar), who killed eighty thousand myriad in Beitar. The appearance of qol (voice) four times in our passage evokes the sounds of battle: Roman slaughter and Jews’ cries of anguish. The talmudic placement of Rabbi Akiva’s approval of Bar Kozva in this context raises questions of how this prominent rabbi (as viewed by the editors of key rabbinic texts) could have considered the leader of that revolt to be the anointed king or the Messiah (cf. Peter Schäfer, “Bar Kokhba and the Rabbis,” p. 3, who claims that Akiva was added to this text at a later stage, thus, arguing that we have no evidence that Rabbi Akiva as a supporter of Bar Kokhba).
Section B presents a baraita where Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai – a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba Revolt – reports a teaching based on a portion of Numbers 24:17 (“A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”) from his master, Rabbi Akiva. This quotation is from Balaam’s oracle:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites. Edom will become a possession, Seir a possession of its enemies, while Israel does valiantly” (Numbers 24:17-18, NRSV).
Here a victorious king is envisioned as a star and a scepter that will rule Israel and defeat its enemies. Rabbi Akiva draws on the similarity between kokhav and the name Kozva to identify this rebel leader as the prophesied king. Before the Bar Kokhvaletters were discovered in the Judean Desert, scholars had theorized that rabbinic literature preferred the name Bar Kozvato underscore that he had been a deceiver (from the Hebrew and Aramaic root k-z-v, to lie). In these letters, he is Shim‘on bar (or, ben) Kosva, thus an indication that the name Bar Kokhba was assigned to him as an articulation of hope, possibly following Numbers 24. Irrespective of the origins of his name, this teaching (B) presents Rabbi Akiva’s view that Bar Kozvais the long-anticipated king who will subdue Edom and Seir (two other nations that became synonymous with Rome in rabbinic literature).
While Sections A and B are comprised of baraitot and are written in Hebrew, Section C is in Aramaic, a signal of amoraic material that furthers the depiction of Rabbi Akiva’s perspective on Bar Kockba, stating “Rabbi Akiva, when he saw Bar Kozva, used to say: ‘This is the anointed king (or, the Messiah king),’” thus, explicitly identifying him as the king that will liberate Israel. However, this sugya then cites the skepticism of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Torta (D) – otherwise known only from his teaching in Tosefta Menahot 13:22 – who is reputed to have told Rabbi Akiva that grass would grow on his cheeks, that is, he would be long in his grave, before the son of David will arrive. Thus, in the Jerusalem Talmud, a leading sage in rabbinic literature enthusiastically supported Bar Kozva, whereas doubt was attributed to a marginal sage (Efron, “Bar-Kokhva,” p. 56). However, despite his doubts about Bar Kozba becoming the anointed Davidic king or the Messiah, Section D does not necessarily imply that Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Torta opposed the rebellion.
It is significant that the disagreement regarding Rabbi Akiva’s endorsement of Bar Kozva is articulated in retrospect, when the devastating results of the revolt are well known. It would have been much easier to present the sages unanimously objecting to Bar Kozva, as in the Babylonian Talmud:
בר כוזב' מלך תרתין שנין ופלג' א' להו לרבנן אנ' משיח א' להו במשי' כתי' דמריח ודאין ניחזי אנן אי מריח ודאין מוטב או אין מריח [נקטליה] כיון דחזיוה דלא מריח ודאין קטלוה
“Bar Kozva ruled for two and a half years. He told our rabbis: ‘I am the Messiah.’ They said [to each other]: ‘About the Messiah, it is written that he smells and judges, [so] let us see: If he smells and judges, good; but if he does not smell, we will kill him.’ When they saw (or, since they saw) that he does not smell and judge, they killed him (Sanhedrin 93b, MS Munich 95).
Whereas the Jerusalem Talmud depicts Rabbi Akiva declaring Bar Kozva as the anointed king or the Messiah, in the Babylonian Talmud, Bar Kozva proclaims himself as the Messiah but the sages detected his deception since, following the standard in Isaiah 11:1-4, the Messiah can judge accurately without any court proceedings, relying exclusively on his sense of smell. As verse 3 states: “He shall be inspired [va-hariḥo] with the fear of the lord.” One interpretation of this verse, from this sugya in Bavli, builds on the similarity between the word va-hariḥo and the Hebrew root r-y-ḥ or r-w-ḥ, whosehiphʿil conjugation means “to smell.” Moreover, according to this teaching, the sages executed Bar Kozva upon determining that he was a false messiah. The differences between the rabbinic attitudes toward Bar Kozva in the two Talmuds is illuminating. In the Jerusalem Talmud, at least some prominent sages supported Bar Kozva and saw him as the king who would deliver Israel from the yoke of Rome. While later portions of this sugya reveal difficult dimensions of Bar Kozva’s leadership, probably to explain his ultimate failure, they also state that certain sages were allied with him and resided in Beitar during the siege (see, Ta‘anit 4:6, 68d-69a; Ta‘anit 4:6, 69a [part one]).
For Israel Ben-Shalom, the Jerusalem Talmud’s placement of prominent sages in Beitar during the siege and Rabbi Akiva advocating for Bar Kozva, coupled with its avoidance of portraying Bar Kozva as the sole culprit for that failure and a false Messiah (as in the Babylonian Talmud), despite having been composed at a time when the demise that followed was well known, proves that this rebel leader had the approval of the sages of his generation. Otherwise, Ben-Shalom contends, the Yerushalmi would be expected to distance itself fully from Bar Kozva, as the Bavli does (Ben-Shalom, “The Support,” p. 18-21). While much scholarly attention toward this source is dedicated to the question of rabbinic support for the revolt, it is noteworthy that this text (and some of the subsequent portions of this sugya) also addresses the brutality inflicted by Rome during the conquest of Beitar.
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